Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween - Witches, Broomsticks, & Hallucinogens

The following article from Forbes can be a little off-putting; and as they say, "I am not entirely convinced." Between about 1450 & 1600, when belief in the power of witchcraft was widespread in Europe, witches were reported to take to the skies & head to their midnight gatherings astride not only broomsticks, but goats, oxen, sheep, dogs & wolves, as well as shovels and staffs. Broomsticks ended up as the preferred vehicle, some scholars suggest, because of their association with the traditional role of women as housekeepers, but this scientist puts a whole new spin on the attraction of broomsticks. 


Martin Le France (1410-1461) Flight of the Witches 'Vaudoises' on the broom, Le Champion des Dames, 1451

Why Do Witches Ride Broomsticks? Hallucinogens

David Kroll in Forbes 10/31/2012 

"Have you ever wondered, especially on Halloween, why witches are depicted as riding brooms through the nighttime sky?


"The truth lies in science — pharmacology, actually. Unfortunately, it’s a story you may find difficult explaining to the kids.


"The excerpts I’m about to give you come from a...pharmacology text entitled, Murder, Magic, and Medicine, by John Mann, host of the BBC Radio 4 series by the same name.




“Double, double toil and trouble

Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – Macbeth IV, i

"It’s all about hallucinations, folks. Hallucinogenic chemicals called tropane alkaloids are made by a number of plants including Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Mandragora officinarum (mandrake), and Datura stramonium (jimsonweed).


"During the Middle Ages, parts of these plants were used to make “brews,” “oyntments,” or “witches’ salves” for witchcraft, sorcery, and other nefarious activities.


"Somewhere along the line, the observation was made that the hallucinogenic compounds, hyoscine in particular (also known as scopolamine), could be absorbed through sweat glands (especially in the armpit) or mucus membranes of the rectum or vagina. These routes of administration also bypassed rapid metabolism by the liver (and severe intestinal discomfort) had the user drank the boiled up plant extract.


"Just how did the alleged witches apply said ointments? The earliest clue comes from a 1324 investigation of the case of Lady Alice Kyteler:  “In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.”


"And from the 15C records of Jordanes de Bergamo:  “But the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.”


"These passages account for why so many of the pictures of the time depict partially clothed (or naked) witches “astride their broomsticks.”




"But what about the issue of flying on said broomsticks?


"The tropane alkaloid hallucinogens tended to cause sleep, but with dreams that involved flying, “wild rides,” and “frenzied dancing.” A 1966 description of tropane alkaloid intoxication was offered by the Gustav Schenk:  “My teeth were clenched, and a dizzied rage took possession of me…but I also know that I was permeated by a peculiar sense of well-being connected with the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my own body. Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own, and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying…I soared where my hallucinations – the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves…billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal – were swirling along.”




"Soooo, these psychosensory experiences of flying were associated with boiled up hallucinogenic plants applied to the vaginal area with a broomstick.


"There you have it.  I never cease to be amazed or impressed by how much of our folk history is influenced by drug from nature — natural products — used in cultural or medical rituals...


"An aside: Legendary pharmacologist, Dr Susan Band Horwitz, reminded me that the same passage from Macbeth quoted above also contains a reference to the source of one of our most useful natural product anticancer drugs, Taxol / paclitaxel.  In 1979, Horwitz and her then-doctoral student, Peter B Schiff, and Jane Fant, published in Nature the seminal report demonstrating that taxol acts by promoting microtubule polymerization to the point that tumor cells cannot coordinate chromosomal segregation. It works this way in everyone, not just witches."  


Author David J Kroll, PhD, is a biomedical educator & pharmacologist.

Post Script:  Why a broom?


Part of the connection may have to do with brooms' place in early folklore rituals. Some theorize that as a tool, the broom is seen to balance both "masculine energies (the phallic handle) & female energies (the bristles)"—which explains why it was often used, symbolically, in marriage ceremonies. Over the years, a common answer to the question of why witches flew on broomsticks was relatively straightforward, if a bit broad. The broom was a symbol of female domesticity, yet the broom was also phallic, so riding on one was a symbol of female sexuality, thus femininity &; domesticity gone wild. Scary for any patriarch! 


Early Celtic folklore associated the broom with fairies, possibly because of it's relation to the wood & a common belief in forest sprites. Some stories tell of a Witch entering a forest & asking the fairies to lead her way to the perfect tree, where she can collect a staff for a broom. The idea is to enlist the help of the magical folk to ensure the enchantment of the broom once it has been fashioned.


As religion spread through early Europe, the broom stick was an important fixture in homes. The major way to keep a home clean was to sweep out the old.  This concept is referred to in the Bible.  In Isaiah 14:23 (KJV translation) "I will sweep it with the besom (a type of broom) of destruction, saith the LORD of hosts."  In Luke 15:8 "The Parable of the Lost Coin": "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins & loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house & search carefully until she finds it?"


Reginald Scot's book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584, described brooms in witches festivals:  "At these magical assemblies, the witches never failed to dance; & in their dance they sing these words, 'Har, har, divell divell, dance here dance here, plaie here plaie here, Sabbath, Sabbath.' And whiles they sing & dance, ever one hath a broom in her hand, & holdeth it up aloft."  

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